Conrad Grebel: The Father of Anabaptists in Switzerland

Dr. Dan Nelson | Pastor
First Baptist Church, Camarillo, CA

Grebel’s entire life was shorter than 30 years.  His Christian ministry was compressed into less than four years and his time as an Anabaptist was only about a year-and-a-half. Conrad Grebel’s impact earned him the title “The father of Anabaptists” because of the stand he took for baptizing believers. Today, we look at men such as Grebel and understand that they have been forgotten during the era of the Protestant Reformation. Our heritage as Baptists comes from men like Grebel who refused to be mandated by the state church to baptize infants. They stood for believer’s baptism, as we do, and the gathered assembly of believers in the local church. For this cause–may we stand with Grebel. We owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude.

Conrad Grebel is considered the “father of Anabaptists for two important reasons.” When he baptized George Blaurock, a married former priest, on January 21, 1525, at the home of Felix Manz, it was the first adult baptism of the reformation. Grebel was the administrator of the first baptism of the Anabaptist movement. Ulrich Zwingli also referred to Grebel as the ringleader of the Anabaptist group in Zurich. Zwingli considered Grebel as the leader of his opponent in their debate.

Although Grebel’s actions began the movement in Zurich his influence was limited. Grebel wrote no major treatises. There are no major works, only a few letters, and he died of the plague less than two years after Blaurock was baptized. He is known more for his actions than his writings.

Grebel was born about 1498 to a prominent Swiss family. His father served on the city council of Zurich. Grebel attended the University of Basel in 1514 and studied under humanist scholar Heinrich Loriti. His initial education was not Christian. The following year he attended the University of Vienna. After spending three years in Vienna, he left for the University in Paris. His father being a person of means allowed for his moving from one university to another. Grebel’s father demanded he return to Zurich. After almost six years of college, Grebel returned home to Zurich.

In 1521 Grebel joined a study group with Ulrich Zwingli. Grebel became a student under Zwingli. The group studied the Greek classics–the Latin Bible and the Greek New Testament. Grebel was soon converted and became enthusiastic about Zwingli’s plan to reform the city of Zurich. However, Grebel was concerned that Zwingli did not reform the city and its practices associated with Catholicism thoroughly. He was specific about the changes that needed to be made. Grebel was concerned about various aspects of the mass still retained in the worship services of the reformed churches in Switzerland. He confronted Zwingli with his concerns regarding these issues.

A division ensued. About fifteen men broke with Zwingli over his inactivity to their concerns. They regularly met together for prayer, fellowship, and Bible study. The men looked for direction from God. The men also looked to others also for direction. They sought religious connections outside of Zurich. The final question to completely sever ties between radicals and Zwingli was the question of infant baptism. Believer’s baptism was their standard.

A public debate was held on January 17, 1525. Zwingli argued against Grebel, Manz, and George Blaurock. The city council decided in favor of Zwingli and infant baptism by governmental edict thereby ordering Grebel and his group to cease their activities. The council also mandated that all infants should be baptized in eight days. It was a test of their convictions now being challenged. Three days later, the council would demand that Grebel and Manz detest from arguing about infant baptism. Free speech was denied and religious liberty was suppressed.

The reaction to the council’s decisions was swift by the group. As a result of these rulings, Grebel, Manz, and others gathered in Manz’s home on January 25 to witness the first adult baptism in Zurich. Grebel baptized George Blaurock, after which Blaurock proceeded to baptize others that were present. These actions prompted a chain reaction. The group left this little gathering, full of zeal, to encourage all men to follow their example.

The group now sought to expand the movement. By the end of the month, Grebel was baptized by Wolfgang Ulimann, a former monk, by immersion in the Rhine River. The remainder of Grebel’s life saw him on the run and being and in and out of prison. He would spend the next several months preaching the need for repentance and baptism with much success in the area of St. Gall (some estimate that as many as 500 persons were baptized there). In October 1525, Grebel was then arrested and sentenced to life in prison. The reward for his conviction was stiff and his future looked bleak. Friends helped him escape though in March of 1526 and he continued in his ministry until he died of the plague later that summer. Grebel died on the run but not from martyrdom which would appear to have been his destiny had he been caught again. Grebel confronted Zwingli when few dared to speak against his defense of infant baptism. Although we know only a little about him because of his short life, he was a forerunner in the Anabaptist movement.